“If I ever take you to the best lines, you’ll have to be blindfolded and taken in by snowmobile,” my friend Ann told me. We were up on the Grand Mesa in Western Colorado and she was teaching me to backcountry ski.
If you’re a reader of The Brave Ski Mom, you may recall that in mid-February, my dear husband and I took our first foray off-piste on teleskis. We were at a “lost” ski area — Pioneer — just south of Crested Butte. We forgot our map, we forgot our book with clear instructions on which runs to take down, we didn’t have any survival gear, and we apparently forgot how to ski, as the downhill trip turned into a farce.
Enough of this self-teaching I decided and sought out the most accomplished backcountry skier I know for a primer.
“What do I need to bring?” I asked Ann, also known as The Outdoor Junkie. As we went through the list of items my backpack needed to hold, I quickly realized that we weren’t going skiing, we were going on an expedition. Helmet, goggles, skins, a light layer, a warm layer, hats, gloves, handwarmers, food, water, hot tea…and these were just the items I was going to carry. Ann had a shovel, beacon, first aid kit and a lot of other survival gear. And this was for a trip to a relatively tame locale, the old Mesa Creek Ski Area.
Mesa Creek was founded by the Grand Junction Ski Club in 1940 where a wagon road crossed, you guessed it, Mesa Creek. In 1950, the area received a Forest Service permit and soon had two rope tows and two runs. By the end of the decade, Mesa Creek had two Poma lifts and was a going concern with around 14,000 skier days per year. In the early 1960s however, local skiers set their sights on a different Grand Mesa basin with steeper slopes and more vertical drop. In 1966, the Poma lifts were moved to what would become Powderhorn Resort and Mesa Creek was no more. Or was it?
It turned out that the base area of Mesa Creek was perfect for sledding while the old runs turned out to be a great backcountry destination. The east side of the old area is adjacent to the highway up Grand Mesa and for many years has served as a drop-off point for skiers and riders shuttling up by car and sliding down on the snow.
There is no easy access to the west side of Mesa Creek however, but there are some great lines and enviable amounts of snow. Inevitably, Mesa Creek became a destination for backcountry skiing.
So here I was skinning up the Grand Mesa behind Ann while she gave me tips on efficient motion, conserving energy and not sliding backwards on the steep bits. Huffing and puffing as I made my way up, she was casually examining aspen trees for bear marks and taking photos of me in which I tried my best to smile and not grimace. That was the uphill part.
As for the downhill? It was a huge improvement over Pioneer. The main drag at Mesa Creek is still wide open, relatively gentle and amazingly brush free, despite 40 some years of grooming neglect. The day Ann and I skied it was cold and windy and many skiers must have stayed home. It was all ours. And it was fabulous.
And while we didn’t go to the “best lines,” I did promise that I wouldn’t disclose where we skied after our first successful run. We went back up two more times. But that’s all I can say. The rest is in the vault.
When You Go….
Be prepared. That is the most important lesson I learned from Ann. While I thought we were in a relatively “civilized” area where I would have expected quite a bit of traffic, once we got off the main drag, we were isolated in the backcountry. I need a bigger backpack and I need safety gear.
Mesa Creek is just a couple of miles past Powderhorn Resort on the north side of the Grand Mesa. There is an obvious parking lot with an outhouse and on a clear, sunny weekend day, you can’t miss all the sledding activity.
The book Powder Ghost Towns: Epic Backcountry Runs in Colorado’s Lost Ski Resorts (Peter Bronski, Wilderness Press) has a section on skiing Mesa Creek. Check that out or ask around. While the locals may be a bit secretive, they are also very friendly. They’ll help you, I promise. They just won’t share the best lines.
© 2011, Kristen Lummis. All rights reserved. Any use or publication of content, including photos, requires express permission.